Compiled by Arthur Gray and first published in 1903, The Little Tea Book is a most delightful little book of history, information, and odes to the precious brew. In the introduction, Mr. Gray tells us: “A glance through this book will show that the spirit of the tea beverage is one of peace, comfort, and refinement.”
We tea drinkers know that truth from experience. My own supposition is that everyone seeks those three attributes, one way or another, in a world very often scant of them. Many of us have found the priceless attributes while drinking tea, so we have placed them there. Each time we sit down for a cup, we steep ourselves in peace, comfort, and refinement. (You can see that Mr. Gray’s book was having an effect on my imagination.)
In his Little Tea Book, Mr. Gray begins the history of tea with a fable about tea being discovered by a high priest of India, whom he terms a Darma (his spelling), who went to China to teach the ‘way of happiness’. While practicing his holy habit of staying awake to meditate and pray, the Darma unfortunately fell asleep. This slip-up caused him to become so enraged (anger rather than sleep apparently being acceptable to him) as to pluck off his eyelids and throw them on the ground. The following morning, strange shrubs flourished from where he had dropped the eyelids. He munched leaves from the shrub, the first tea plants, and found himself lifted to mental and spiritual heights. Of course the holy man taught the benefits of the bushes to his disciples, and the use of tea began.
Dating the use of tea in Great Britain to the mid-1600s, Mr. Gray cites an advertisement in the Mercurius Politicius, dated September 1658: “That excellent and by all Physitians approved China drink, called by the Chineans, Tcha, by other nations, Tay, or Tea, is sold at the Sultana’s Head, a Coppee House, in Sweetings Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London.” Note the ‘by all Physitians approved.” From the earliest, the way to sell something was to expound on the health properties.
These instructions on brewing tea are passed along from the ancient Emperor Kien Lung, who wrote to his children: “Set a tea-pot over a slow fire; fill it with cold water; boil it long enough to turn a lobster red; pour it on the quantity of tea in a porcelain vessel; allow it to remain on the leaves until the vapor evaporates, then sip it slowly, and all your sorrows will follow.” We dedicated tea drinkers can attest to this truth.
I suggest waiting to read The Little Tea Book when you are ready for tea time, because in the reading, you will be filled with the desire to drink vast quantities of the stuff. But I do not recommend the ancient recipe for brewing tea as found on page 15. It involves egg yolks. Ewewww…
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